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COVID-19 Crisis Blog: A Global Contagion Chronic Threats to Democracy

4 November 2020 - As we navigate a national and global public health crisis with the spread of Covid-19 Coronavirus, we hear from our research and policy fellows, and members of our research community in a weekly blog which reflects on these new societal challenges. This week, in a special guest blog, Andrew Kahrl, professor of history at the University of Virginia, and Melody Barnes, co-director for policy and public affairs of the UVA Democracy Initiative discuss the global threats to democracy.

This guest essay is a collaboration between the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute and the University of Virginia Democracy Initiative. The University of Virginia is a public university founded in 1819 by President Thomas Jefferson who authored the Declaration of Independence. View the Democracy and the Pandemic Series on the UVA Democracy Initiative’s website.

In recent years, concerns about threats to democracy have often been couched in the form of a metaphor: contagion. Researchers, analysts, and activists have issued dire warnings of the threats posed by fascist, populist, and authoritarian movements spreading, like a disease, throughout the bodies of democratic societies and institutions. Indications of democracy’s vulnerabilities to attack abound. In 2017, the Economic Intelligence Unit downgraded the United States to the status of “flawed democracy” due to what it described as “a sharp fall in popular confidence in the functioning of public institutions.” In March 2020, the non-partisan organization Freedom House reported the fourteenth straight year of democratic decline around the world.

Now, democracies face an actual, global contagion that’s laid bare problems and conditions that have gone untreated and threaten the long-term health of democracy itself. Just as it has to human bodies, COVID-19 has exploited longstanding weaknesses in societies and governing systems and threatens to compound existing inequities. The unfolding efforts to contain the virus, care for its victims, and address the economic fallout have tested the capacities of health care and economic systems to meet public demands and deliver on their promises. It is necessary to generate new ideas and approaches to ensure public health and economic security for all. Around the world, the beliefs and practices of democratic societies and institutions are not only being challenged, but out of this experience, reimagined and transformed.

The University of Virginia Democracy Initiative has published a series of essays exploring the implications of the pandemic on democracy, broadly conceived. University scholars, local community members, and others have started a conversation, and through their essays, they call attention to under-examined issues and looming challenges, draw new connections, place current public discussions and debates in a new light, and offer ideas for a path forward.

The essay authors challenge us to consider a variety of issues – from our strained and dysfunctional system of federalism to the role corporations and the state play when citizens’ needs must be met in a time of crisis. From our tense and essential relationship with China to the implications for democracy when social distancing aggregates more power in the hands of the media.

We believe this work is at the heart of what a public university should do and the Democracy Initiative’s mission. Research universities and academic institutions such as ours have long been at the forefront of developing new approaches and disseminating new ideas that are critical to a healthy, functioning, and democratic society. In our classrooms, offices, laboratories, and gathering spaces, we challenge ourselves and each other to locate the intersections and hidden connections linking individuals, communities, and societies to institutions, structures, history, and the natural world. It is more important than ever to find new forums and modes to address and find answers to problems old and new.

Universities shouldn’t exist as ivory towers on a hill. While we are a place for reflection and theory, we must also be a place for engagement and action. While we encourage the study of democracy, we must also model the practice of democratic culture. Ultimately, research universities must probe underlying issues and provoke deeper interrogation, as well as instigate the kinds of spirited debates and actions that are critical to a healthy democracy.

That is particularly true, here and now. The current crisis reveals chronic challenges with which our community is painfully familiar. Indeed, while COVID-19 threatens to exacerbate health and educational disparities, state violence, food insecurity, homelessness and other generations-old challenges, it did not create these problems. As a public university whose own history embodies the ideals, shortcomings and contradictions of democracy in America, the University of Virginia holds a special responsibility to confront these legacies and its impact on how citizens are experiencing this pandemic.

But as goes our community, so go communities across the country and around the world. Social division; distrust and disillusionment; dysfunctional, sometimes corrupt, often sclerotic institutions; historic and widening inequities; a public square that rejects civil discourse and deliberation; and, strained liberal democratic alliances are among the chronic ailments that fuel the rising threats to democratic principles and institutions. Our work demands that that we engage one another and those beyond this community to not only wrestle with these issues but shape debates and agendas to eliminate them. Democracy is not inevitable. Its future will be determined by our ability to address both the chronic and crisis challenges facing us, today.

Melody C. Barnes: A presidential advisor and director of the White House Domestic Policy Council during President Barack Obama’s administration, Melody C. Barnes serves as co-director for policy and public affairs for the Democracy Initiative. In addition to her leadership role with UVA’s Democracy Initiative, Barnes also holds appointments as a professor of practice at the Miller Center of Public Affairs and as a distinguished fellow at the School of Law. Listen to Melody Barnes speaking at the Rethinking Democracy in an Age of Pandemic series here.

Andrew Kahrl: Andrew Kahrl is an associate professor of history and African American studies at the University of Virginia. His research focuses on the social, political, and environmental history of real estate, land use, and taxation in twentieth-century America. He teaches courses on race and real estate in post–World War II America, the civil rights movement, and American cities in the twentieth century. His first book, The Land Was Ours: African American Beaches from Jim Crow to the Sunbelt South (2012), received the OAH Liberty Legacy Foundation Award.

Recent posts in the COVID-19 Crisis Blog:

Gender and the Pandemic (29 October 2020)

Politics in Trying Times (2 October 2020)

Deaf in a Time of Covid-19 (23 September 2020)

Dorothy Stopford Price and the BCG vaccination (16 September 2020)

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